Philip Chester, former president of the Zionist Federation of Australia and of the Zionist Council of Victoria, was awarded the Jerusalem Prize at the Zionist Council’s Annual Assembly in November for his dedication and commitment to the Zionist cause.
Click here to listen to the remarks of Zionist Council President Sam Tatarka as he presented the award and Philip’s acceptance speech, the transcript of which you may read below.
Philip Chester’s Acceptance Speech
18 November 2014
I feel humbled by the great honour that the WZO, ZFA and Zionist Council of Victoria have bestowed on me by awarding me with the prestigious Jerusalem Prize.
To be receiving this award that has previously been presented to luminaries like Bob Hawke, John Howard, Julia Gillard, Alexander Downer, Sir Zelman Cowan and Mark Leibler is rather daunting to put it mildly, but what makes it so special is that my Zionist colleagues, both here and in Israel with whom I have worked so closely for so long in the movement, have decided to honour me in this way.
To be honest I still haven’t quite come down from the high I was on when I was farewelled as ZFA President last March after 8 years, with very kind speeches by Mark Leibler, Sam Lipski and Sam Tatarka and by that show stopping set of very personal video greetings from Bibi Netayanhu, Boozie Herzog, Rabbi Benny Lau, Yuli Edelstein and Ruth Calderon amongst others which Ginette Searle and Yigal Sela organised as a very well-kept secret, that left me speechless for probably the first time in my whole communal life and which I will always treasure.
On this special evening, as I reflect on my Jewish communal experience starting in Betar at the tender age of 6, eventually going on to leading Betar Australia, then moving on to AUJS of which I was also privileged to be elected National President, then moving on to the State Zionist Council which I was President of for 4 years and ultimately leading the ZFA for 8 years, I realise that the effect it had on my life is a testament to our outstanding Zionist movement here in Australia.
I never attended a Jewish school or spent much time in a Shul growing up, so Betar was where I learnt the Shabbat prayers, and was first exposed to Jewish history, Hebrew, Zionism and Israel. AUJS gave me the opportunity to go to Israel on numerous occasions and to rub shoulders with the leaders of our community as well as most importantly enabling me to meet my future wife, Ilana.
All of these experiences inspired me to learn more about our heritage and the seminal role of Israel in Jewish life and motivated me to become more deeply involved in many aspects of our community through the Zionist movement.
For me, and I’d venture to say, many others in this room tonight, the Zionist movement and its great institutions like our Zionist youth movements, AUJS, our Israeli fundraisers, women’s organisations, political and religious bodies and schools to name just a few, have largely defined and ensured our Jewish identity and those of our children and grandchildren.
This, of course, was the dream of the Zionist movement – to create the State of Israel and in so doing transform and secure Jewish life everywhere. I truly believe, from my own experiences and those of my wife and kids, that this is what it has done for the Australian Jewish community so successfully.
As all of you know only too well, communal life can be an all-consuming and at times a quite stressful past-time. However, when I look back over my many years of involvement I have so many personal highlights that I’m proud of, like the multitude of rallies we held over the years when so many of our community came out to support Israel at difficult times; coming together in large numbers as one unified community at Beth Weizmann to watch Gilad Shalit finally being released; the Shnat movement farewells at the airport each year when I spoke to our best young future leaders as they excitedly embarked on their year of growth in Israel and their parents cried; participating in so many youth movement and student programs with their leadership and witnessing their passion for Israel and Jewish causes; hosting many of Israel’s top leaders, educators, academics and rabbis, all of whom were so impressed with our Australian Jewish community; speaking at the historic Federal parliamentary resolution on Israel’s 60th Yom Ha’atzmaut in Canberra; establishing a tribe of Israeli scouts for Hebrew speaking youth; bringing our first shlicha for the Russian speaking community, sending our Kangarusski birthright groups; and witnessing the giving of mezuzot to our Olim just before they leave Australia to fulfill the highest goal of our movement.
There were, of course, also some difficult personal challenges, like the Dubai Passport affair when PM Kevin Rudd, FM Stephen Smith and nearly every media outlet in Australia was lined up against us, and we didn’t actually know what had really happened, and no one in Israel was going to tell us; visiting Noam and Aviva Shalit at their tent in Jerusalem before they knew Gilad was coming home and not knowing how to comfort them; visiting the family of Ehud Goldwasser after he was kidnapped and eventually killed in Lebanon which started the second Lebanon war and then bringing his father Shlomo to Australia on a very emotional speaking tour; and the terribly sad Prisoner X affair which precipitated some very nasty public allegations of due loyalty directed at our community.
The truth though is that even when I had concerns over certain things that Israel may have done, what always drove me to defend her to the best of my ability was my fundamental belief that although Israel may make mistakes, the cause is right and her people are moral. I know this not just as a slogan, but because our eldest son David is one of Israel’s elite soldiers, and we brought him up to always behave in an ethical and compassionate way, even when having to defend Israel in difficult situations, and I know his training reinforced this.
On a cautionary note I do worry about the long term sustainability of our lay leadership model which has served the Australian Jewish community so well up to now, compared with the US model where professionals run and lead the major community organisations. It is true that someone always seems to step up to the plate, but committed as all of our honorary leaders in the Zionist movement are, I wonder whether we can realistically expect the next generation to have the time, resources, work flexibility and most importantly the interest to attend the numerous meetings, conferences and events and deal with all sorts of political and bureaucratic issues, I and other senior leaders have done in an honorary capacity.
The key, I believe, is to focus on, nurture and support our younger leaders to stay involved in communal life. This was always a key priority of mine, as it was what great communal leaders like Bob Zablud, Sam Lipski, Isidor Magid and Mark Leibler did in placing their faith in me at the formative stage of my communal career. I have always made it a point to engage and acknowledge youth movement and student leaders as much as possible, not because it’s a popular slogan, but because without their progression our wonderful community will eventually suffer.
Despite what we hear about the apathy and selfishness of Gen Y, there are undoubtedly many talented and passionate younger members of our community who want to be involved in Jewish and Zionist life, if we are prepared to let them. We must understand that they may look at Israel, Jewish life and the world in different ways to us, and that simply asking them to join our committees and do what we tell them will not wash because that’s not how they want to contribute. If however we are prepared to give them meaningful responsibility, even if we may think they are a little young, you will see how they rise to the challenge. This, in fact, is how many of the best leaders we have had started their communal careers.
I do not however fear for the longevity and continued prosperity of our Zionist movement in general because, apart from all of the committed people working in it, all of my personal experiences tell me that Israel is the key to Jewish continuity and engagement in our community, and more and more people want to immerse themselves in an Israeli experience and build connections with the people of Israel, and that means the Zionist movement will continue to be central and critically relevant to everything of significance in Australian Jewish life.
As I said at my ZFA farewell speech in March this year, Ilana and others kept telling me that I wouldn’t know what to do with an extra 30 hours or so a week to myself, but slowing down a little didn’t sound like a bad idea. Many people had also been asking what my next communal position would be.
Well, some 8 months later, although I am still involved in plenty of things at the ZFA as Immediate Past President, which I’m of course happy to do, I am enjoying riding my bike a little more, having been able to take my son Joel to Brazil for the World Cup, and taking a short trip with Ilana to China as well as concentrating a little more on legal practice.
Who knows what the future will bring, but for now I’m content to let others occupy centre stage in communal life, allowing me to engage in that great Jewish pastime of giving plenty of free advice without assuming any responsibility.
In conclusion, I’d like to acknowledge and thank a number of people.
First to Avraham Duvdevani, Chairman of the WZO and Gusti Yehoshua Braverman, Head of the Overseas Desk of the WZO for agreeing to confer the Jerusalem Prize on me.
Dr. Danny Lamm, President of the ZFA, Sam Tatarka, President of the Zionist Council of Victoria, and their executives for deciding to recommend me for this award.
To all of my colleagues in the Zionist movement who give so much of their time and hearts to supporting Israel and connecting it with our community.
To my friends who have come specially tonight to honour me, for which I am grateful.
To my Mum, my mother-in-law, Doreen, my brother Louis, Miriam and their whole clan who are also here in force.
And last, but most importantly, to my own immediate family, my dear wife and closest friend Ilana, our daughter Naomi and husband Yehuda, our little son Joel who are here tonight and of course our big boy David, who realised the highest aim of our movement when he made Aliyah almost 7 years ago, who have not only supported me on this great journey, but I am very proud to tell you share my love of Israel and all that Zionism stands for.
Although there are many things as a Zionist leader that I didn’t get to do or that I could have done better, I feel I have given the Zionist movement absolutely everything of my life that I possibly could.
It has been an absolute privilege to serve this great cause and I have no doubt that I have gained much more from the experience than I have given.
I thank you all for being part of this most memorable event for me.